One of the best--and worst--things about learning a language is the fact that you never, ever, actually finish learning a language; not even your own. Having spent well over a decade living in Spanish speaking countries, it never ceases to amaze me how many words I still have to learn. And it isn’t only in Spanish. I’m constantly discovering new words in my native language as well, in my thirties.
Part of the fascinating fact about languages is that they are living and constantly evolving. Just think of the internet and the multitude of new vocabulary it’s brought us, or smartphones and podcasts and selfies. Then there’s newer technologies like blockchain, bringing us Bitcoin and Ether. We’ll never be finished learning a language, because the day you know every word in a language is the day that the language has died. Rather like Latin.
Oh, sure, you can argue that Latin is still widely used in law, medicine, perhaps even diplomacy, but there are no new words being created. It is no longer a living language despite being spoken regularly. The same cannot be said for English, French, Spanish and the 7,107 languages on earth today.
While French and Italian get kudos for their sexy status, Arabic for being exotic and Chinese for just being extremely cool, English is kind of like the brown bread of languages. A staple for your diet, but a little bit bland and boring.
Or is it? If you’re getting tired of hearing the language spoken by 1,500 million people in the world and want a new lease of life on it, check out these seven British sayings that add color to the English language.
1. Donkey's Years
The translation of donkey’s years? A really long time. What do lengthy periods of time have to do with these placid, cud chewing animals? Not a lot. Donkey’s years does not actually refer to the lifespan of donkeys (they only live to about 25 years), but actually to the length of their ears. You see, the British are all too aware of the short fallings of their language. They like to have fun with it by adding in twists and rhymes. What this saying refers to is the fact that donkeys have long ears, which rhymes with “years,” which means a long time... Got it?
2. A Spanner in the Works
As long as you know the meaning of the word spanner you can probably guess at this one. You haven’t? Well, depending on where you speak or learn English, in the USA a spanner is called a “wrench” and “the works,” well, that looseley relates to a plan. Huh? Basically, a “spanner in the works” means a complication, a problem, or something that’s gotten in the way.
3. Cock up
If you’ve made a cock up out of something, you’ve messed it up by catastrophic proportions. Let’s say, for example, that you ordered all meat for a traveling group of vegans. You could pretty much say you’d made a monumental cock up. Although, be careful using “cock up” around Americans--they might think you’re being sexually explicit.
4. Bob's Your Uncle
This is a strange one, make no mistake. No, you don't need to have a family member with the name of Bob to have this said to you. So, if you hear it, the appropriate answer is not, “No he’s not, my uncle is Ken.” Bob’s your Uncle actually means “there you go!” Add two pints of milk, one cup of flour, two eggs, mix it up and Bob’s your uncle! And you thought the Brits were boring!
5. How's Your Father
Born out of British politeness, as so many things are, how's your father” isn’t actually asking how your Dad is doing. It’s referring to the act of making love! Which should never include your father, but that Freudian slip seems to have been missed here. Popular during World War One, luckily you won’t hear this one said too much today. But, if you ever get told about someone having a spot of hows-your-father, you’ll know when to blush.
6. The Curate’s Egg
Americans wish they had as much history, class and sophistication as the British, and I delight in using this expression on them. If you ask someone how their day was and they respond that it was like “the curate’s egg,” you’ll probably be flummoxed. What they’re trying to say in a nice way is that it was pretty awful. This one goes way back to 1985 when Punch magazine published a cartoon highlighting British politeness. A reverend was hosting a curate and the curate was too timid to complain that his food was bad. When the reverend said, “you seem to have a bad egg,” he replied, “Oh no my Lord! I assure you, parts of it are excellent!”
7. Chin Wag
Not a plate of Chinese food, a chin wag actually refers to having a good old gossip or a catching up session with someone. Usually accompanied by a good old English cuppa (cup of tea). Don’t get it? Well just think about how your chin moves up and down when you talk, not really a wag but somewhere near.
If you’re feeling up a creek without a paddle or like you’ve lost the plot, fear not, embrace your language learning. And take heart, you may never get to the bottom of the English language, but you’ll sure have fun in the process.
Christina Comben is Content Manager at translation services provider, Day Translations. Qualified to MBA level, and motivated by challenge, change, and continued learning, Christina has lived and worked her way around the world, garnering in-depth knowledge of diverse office industries, from media and entertainment to education, health, and information technology.